International NGOs supporting grassroots movements: who talks and who listens?

In a world where elites cannot be trusted to look out for the interests of the poor, mass mobilisations are important. We need to examine the links between INGOs and grassroots movements, and find out who talks and who listens. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debates on Emerging Powers and Human Rights and Human rights: mass or elite movement?

Kate Nash
7 August 2013

Human rights cannot be realised only by the ‘naming and shaming’ of elites - the modus operandi that Human Rights Watch and Amnesty have.  Changing how elites think and what they do is vital, but mass mobilisations are also necessary to secure all kinds of rights: civil and political as well as social, economic and cultural. 

Elites are obviously part of the problem when it comes to the human rights of the poor.  This is clear where they mobilise hatred and violence, using state machinery for their own political ends.  It is also clear where elite wealth and status depends on others’ marginalisation and impoverishment. 

Nor – as Ron, Crow and Golden have pointed out - can the middle classes be counted on to look out for the interests of the poor.  In fact, the middle classes can be part of the problem.  Enjoying human rights in practice depends on how people use them – on what they claim, and how they make rights-claims.  Poor people can be kept in ignorance, so that they get far less than they are due even in terms of existing law.  And, as Harri Englund has shown, the administration of human rights creates its own status hierarchies and cruelties. 

What is more, enjoying human rights depends on changing cultural, social and economic practices that go far beyond bureaucratic administration. This is most obvious in the case of women’s human rights.  It is strongly argued at the international level now that states are responsible for preventing violence against women as a matter of international human rights law.   But ultimately, just to end violence against women, what is needed is social, economic and cultural change that makes a difference in the private domestic sphere as well as in public.  Grassroots organising is necessary if people are to be reached ‘where they are’, to change ways of thinking, how people treat each other, and how we live together.  This is no less true in the UK – where on average two women are murdered in their homes each week by their male partners - than it is in any other part of the world.

Change is necessary at the grassroots, then, for human rights to be of any use to the poor.  But addressing elites is also vital.  If elites are part of the problem, changing their behaviour must be part of the solution. There is clearly a role for INGOs in addressing national and international elites alongside grassroots mobilisations.  This is just as important where social, economic and cultural rights are concerned as it is for civil and political rights.  Perhaps Aryeh Neier is right to argue that Human Rights Watch is better placed to militate for civil rights rather than entering into issues of social justice.  Though, actually, both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty have committed themselves to the indivisibility of rights: to the understanding that economic, social and cultural change is necessary if civil and political rights are to be realised, and vice versa.  In addition, INGOs like Oxfam, Action Aid, and even CARE International, that have been more traditionally concerned with humanitarianism and development, have now taken up campaigns on social justice as part of their turn to a ‘rights based approach to development’.

A fascinating example of a successful link between grassroots and international elites, mediated by Oxfam, comes from the Treatment Action Campaign for national provision of drugs necessary to treat HIV/Aids in South Africa.  This was a grassroots movement, involving civil disobedience learned in anti-apartheid struggles, and a ‘treatment literacy programme’ that was run by volunteers who were themselves suffering with HIV/Aids.  It also involved taking the South African government to court, and international pressure on pharmaceutical companies to bring down the price of the drugs.  Oxfam was very important in the lobbying of pharmaceutical companies, and it also helped organise protests around the world to ensure that the South African government made the drugs available nationally.

But although they are clearly necessary to realising human rights, we actually know very little about grassroots mobilisations.  Ron’s, Crow’s and Golden’s research, which found that poor people do not know about human rights is disturbing, but it is not really surprising.  If people are to make ‘human rights’ part of their everyday lives, they must – literally – be translated into the languages people use.  But does this always take the form of ‘vernacularisation’ in Sally Engle Merry’s terms – which involves some reference to concepts that are embedded in international human rights law, including equality of the individual?   Or, as Jack Snyder suggests, does it produce new hybrid ways of thinking at the grassroots, complex and pluralistic, which must first be understood in their own terms before they can be related back - if at all - to the language of international human rights law? 

We also know very little about how INGOs link to grassroots movements. In the case of the Treatment Action Campaign, it seems clear that Oxfam fitted in with the aims of the movement as it was developed nationally.  But sometimes movements are shaped to attract the help of INGOs.  This can distort a movement’s aims, taking it in a direction that diverges from local understandings.  As Clifford Bob has shown, it can even be dangerous when the world’s attention is drawn only to violence and bloodshed, and leaders are tempted to escalate protests in order to provide it. 

If poor people’s human rights are to be respected, we need to know more about who talks and who listens when human rights are in question.  To understand how grassroots mobilisations can successfully engage elites, we need to know more about how people experience talk of human rights at the local level.  And we also need to know more about how INGOs have supported grassroots mobilisations in examples of good practice.  Who talks and who listens? That is surely the most important question for human rights today.


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